Billboard is celebrating the 2010s with essays on the 100 songs that we feel most define the decade that was — the songs that both shaped and reflected the music and culture of the period — with help telling their stories from some of the artists, behind-the-scenes collaborators and industry insiders involved.
If 15 years ago, you showed someone a picture of 22-year-old Post Malone — a heavily tattooed, long-haired and unassumingly dressed North Texan — and mentioned to them that he’d have a chart-topping hit with an Bon Scott- and Jim Morrison-namechecking ode to rock star living literally titled “Rockstar,” they’d probably believe it. But the song that they’d be picturing in their head would be a very, very different one than the one that actually conquered the Hot 100 for eight weeks in late 2017.
By the time Post Malone broke out as a rapper in the mid-’10s, conventional rock stardom had all but been left for dead. With the rise of EDM and hip-hop in the age of streaming, guitars had largely been reduced to a seasoning in popular music, and most of the biggest acts that still operated from a rock home base — Imagine Dragons, Twenty One Pilots, Panic! At the Disco — had decentralized the instrument or removed it entirely, in favor of heavy beats and dense soundscapes.
But the artist born Austin Richard Post backdoored his way into a 2010s version of rock stardom, via a series of contagious trap-pop singles, with soupy production, knockout choruses, and Post’s one-of-a-kind warble. It wasn’t quite rap, and it definitely wasn’t rock, but it electrified young listeners from both worlds. And with “Rockstar” — a hedonistic turn-up anthem whose actual sound is highly melodic, unthreatening, even kind of sedate — he found the perfect anthem for a generation who might not have even known the difference between The Doors and AC/DC.
Over a twinkling trap production that sounds like the sun setting, Post details living up to the titular lifestyle by risking arrest on stage and throwing a TV out of his hotel room, all built around his chorus hook, “I’ve been f–king h–s and popping pillies, man, I feel just like a rock star.” Guest rapper 21 Savage doubles down with boasts of “f–king superstars” and making the “Hot Chart,” while imitating Post’s sing-song delivery. Both artists sound eerily calm for claims of such revelry, letting the spitting beat and waves of distortion raise the energy level around them. “I wanted to add a long outro with a guitar,” co-producer Louis Bell told Billboard shortly after the single’s release. “But it can’t be an actual guitar because it’s 2017.”
“It’s one of those records where probably every time somebody heard it for the first time, they thought, ‘Oh my God, I found something that nobody else is gonna like, but I love it,’” says John Ivey, president of CHR programming strategy for iHeartMedia. “It went on rhythm stations and urban stations, pop stations, all at the same time. And still today, it’s one of our most popular. People don’t get fatigued of it.”
“Rockstar” was also a smash on streaming services, where Post Malone’s genre-elastic, playlist-friendly sound had an almost magnetic pull on listeners. The song topped Billboard’s Streaming Songs chart for 13 weeks across 2017 and 2018, while parent album beerbongs and bentleys broke the single-week streaming record for an LP upon its release in April 2018. Today, “Rockstar” is one of four Post songs to break the billion-stream mark on Spotify; only Justin Bieber has more.
But while Post found enormous popularity as a rock star operating in a primarily hip-hop space, he also found considerable backlash. Critics were extremely negative, with the Washington Post savaging his headlining set at his eponymous Posty Fest in 2018, and a Vulture article worriedly asking, “What If Post Malone Is Here Forever?” Many gatekeepers called him out for not treating the genre with the proper respect, particularly after a video interview where he claimed to connect more emotionally to rock than rap (“If you’re looking to think about life, don’t listen to hip-hop”). He also struggled often to properly check his privilege as a white artist in a historically black artform, notably balking when asked in a Breakfast Club radio interview about what he was doing for the Black Lives Matter movement.
Nonetheless, Post Malone’s career momentum has been little disrupted by these controversies, as his general amiability seems to largely diffuse any public anger towards him. (Interviews and other media appearances have also come fewer and farther between in the years since “Rockstar,” suggesting that Post realizes the safest way to say nothing publicly that he’ll regret is to say nothing at all.)
He’s also proven to be arguably the most reliable hitmaker of the late ‘10s, spawning two more Hot 100 No. 1s with the Ty Dolla $ign-assisted “Psycho” and Swae Lee collab “Sunflower” and another four top five hits. He’s even won a couple critics over: Pitchfork ran an essay titled “Learning to Love Post Malone” in July 2018, and third album Hollywood’s Bleeding attracted much stronger reviews across the board than beerbongs and bentleys. “I think that he’s got some staying power,” Ivey offers.
Meanwhile, Post has slowly but surely begun to integrate the six-string back into his hits. Beerbongs top 5 hit “Better Now” rides in on a grungy guitar intro, while bouncy Bleeding single “Circles” is a poppy acoustic strummer, and follow-up “Take What You Want” not only includes a blistering electric solo, but a guest appearance from the Prince of Darkness himself, Ozzy Osbourne. In the 2020s, Post Malone might end up a rock star in Bon and Jim’s own image after all.